Concluding Remarks

That’s it for the 2018 IFComp reviews. My sincere thanks to all the authors; I realize that making an interactive-fiction game is a huge time sink that can often seem unrewarding. The interactive-fiction community is not a particularly friendly place, even if the people in it are, and I wanted to write something here that avoided the dismissiveness and unnecessary unpleasantness I’ve seen in some (certainly not all) other reviews. There’s room here for a huge variety of games, and we need a larger body of reviewers to avoid narrowly focusing attention in what’s already a small, niche community to only those games with the currently trendy intrepreters, styles, and themes. The only way to do that is to generate more reviews, so here’s my small contribution.

That having been said, what sort of game do I personally like? Here’s a histogram of the overall ratings:

overall-scores.png

There are only six out of the 76 rated games that I gave a 9 or 10 to. They’re all longer works with prominent puzzles and a light, comedic tone, so that’s a good first approximation to my preferred type of game. For a more detailed look, I’ve marked each game in four categories:

  • Parser games rely on parsing text commands, while choice games use a more intuitive but less flexible interface: Choosing a decision among a list of alternatives, dragging actions over keywords in the text to invoke them, etc.
  • Standard systems are ones that have been used for a while by a large audience (by IF standards); the most prominent example is Inform. A custom system is one that was developed recently and isn’t commonly used used, or one developed (by the author or someone else) with custom features for one particular game.
  • A serious game is a dramatic one that has the goal of affecting the player emotionally. A light one has a less serious tone and is more concerned with the gameplay itself. (Light games are not necessarily comedic; the Zork games fall into that category, for example.)
  • A long game more than an hour to complete without a walkthrough; a short game takes less.

(Of course, these labels are somewhat arbitrary and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.) With the large number of games in the competition, we can test whether there are significant differences in my evaluations of the categories above.

  • Parser games have a mean score 0.38 higher than that of choice games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.50.
  • Standard-system games have a mean score 0.42 higher than that of custom-system games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.44.
  • Light games have a mean score 0.61 higher than that of serious games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.25.
  • Long games have a mean score 1.42 higher than that of short games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.0023.

(The analysis above uses Welch’s t-test, and the p-values given correspond to the null hypothesis that each pair of populations has the same mean score.) It thus looks like I might have bit of a preference for light parser-based games on standard systems, but I definitely give higher scores to long games than short ones. If you want a high score in my reviews next year, the safest bet is to write a lightly comedic puzzlefest in Inform that takes over an hour to play. Don’t forget to add in a raven or some intense math for a free bonus point.

Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night, by Mike Carletta

In the last IFComp, I submitted a game based about two comic-book supervillains’ attempted capers. “Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of the Night” is a game also in that some pulp comic-book genre, but it’s a very different game. I was pesronally especially interested in it particularly as a constrast with my own game, but it’s a clever, charming game I’d happily recommend to anyone.

Gameplay: The protagonist is a superhero trying to stop a Martian supervillain. (The comics here are space opera ones; neither character has superpowers, and ray guns and doomsday machines are prominent.) The game is fundamentally a puzzlefest, albeit one with substantial flavor and good writing, that has three main puzzles that must be solved in succession. The relatively small map focuses attention on the well-designed puzzles, and the game doesn’t feel rushed or unfocused. 9/10.

Mechanics: There are three puzzles to the game: a standard adventure-style inventory and set-piece puzzle; a puzzle that’s almost a logic problem; and a puzzle involving understanding the color mechanic in the game. The idea of a “black-and-white” text-adventure in the latter is brilliant, and the puzzle surrounding it is creative. All three puzzles are of reasonable difficulty, and they have a few separate subparts. To alleviate frustration, the author provides in-game hints and a walkthrough.

The only problem I had with the mechanics is that it’s unfair in one particular part: A certain puzzle requires using information from previous fatal attempts to solve it. It’s not a mechanical problem, given the length of the game and the presence of save files and the undo command, but it’s hard to call it completely satisfactory. Adding a warning about the upcoming puzzle (e.g., a map) would eliminate the problem. 9/10.

Presentation: The writing captures the golden-age comic-book sensibility well, and it’s short enough that it can keep up its over-the-top style without overstaying its welcome. The characters are stock ones, but the pacing of the game prevents them from being shallow or repetitive. It’s hard to dislike a game involving a bit of math, references to “Ulysses,”, and comic-book superheroes and supervillains. 9/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like multi-part puzzles involving systems to play around with.

Score: 9

The Mouse Who Woke Up for Christmas, by Luke A. Jones

“The Mouse Who Woke Up for Christmas” is a long parser-based game about a mouse trying to prepare for the holiday. In order to get everything ready in time, he has to scour his surroundings for the appropriate items he needs.

Gameplay: The game takes place in a large world containing more items and puzzles than most competition entries. It’s an impressive scope, though it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where to go next without a walkthrough. The protagonist meets a variety of animal NPCs, but most of them are single-note characters used for only one puzzle. Still, it’s fun to wander around a human’s backyard as a mouse, and the puzzles are more invovled than just using one item on another. 5/10.

Mechanics: The game is a puzzlefest, and it would be difficult to solve the puzzles without a walkthrough. Some of the puzzles involve considerable leaps in logic, like the one involving tying a crow’s skull to a metal bar to make a “crowbar.” The openness of the world often makes it hard to progress, since it’s unclear where the player’s attention should be focused. 6/10.

strong>Presentation: Although I enjoyed the descriptions of the backyard from a mouse’s perspective, the text had numerous typos (e.g., “You’re not tryying to tell me what to do”) and lots of missing punctuation. There was also several instances of what look like coding errors in responses, as in WAKE CAT -> “You can’t wake up;wake her.” The tone of the game of inconsistent, and it’s unclear in places what the author had in mind.

The story starts out with a pyjama-clad mouse putting his daughter to bed before Christmas, which suggests that it’s going to be a twee story for children. Shortly thereafter, the mouse encounters a pigeon using profanity. (I have no problem with profanity itself; it’s the switch in tone that’s jarring.) After that, there’s a snail whose description mentions that he’s not fully implemented yet, and the player can have him eat a source code listing to give him a more thorough description. That combination of storybook animals, profanity, and meta-jokes about coding is an odd one, and the game feels like a crazy quilt of tone rather than setting.
4/10.

Tilt: One of the characters is a corvid (specifically, a magpie) who’s involved in a few puzzles. +1.

You might be interested in this game if: You want to a play game a puzzlefest that has a large number of puzzles but still has a compact world.

Score: 5

Space Punk Moon Tour, by J_J

“Space Punk Moon Tour” is a parser-based program game involving a teenager’s space flight to see a band she likes.

Gameplay: There’s a wide variety of objects and characters to interact with in the game, although most of them are not useful to the story and merely provide flavor. The protagonist has clear goals, but the puzzles and NPC interactions involved in pursuing those goals are sometimes opaque. Combined with the guess-the-verb problems, I found it difficult to make progress in the game. 5/10.

Mechanics: It’s often unclear how to proceed in the game, with some of the puzzles being a bit unmotivated. The protagonist can’t leave her house until she’s packed, but the game never indicates exactly what she’s missing; it turns out that she wants to take her cat with her. She can’t leave the subway until she accomplishes a certain task, but what that task is never revealed until she stumbles into it; it turns out that a friend of hers is standing barefoot nearby, and she needs to give him a pair of her boots. She needs to befriend a clerk in order to get a special dispensation for her cat, but there aren’t many clues about what he would like; it turns out that one of the books she’s carrying is on a subject he’s interested in. I may have missed something obvious, but the convenient in-game hint system (operating under the conceit of texting a friend of the protagonist’s for help) didn’t reveal any such clues either. 4/10.

Presentation: The setting is one in the near future with some cyperpunk elements, especially its aesthetics, added. It’s familiar enough to be realistic without being overly familiar, and it helps the story develop. I ran into a few guess-the-verb issues while playing the game, particularly in trying to take the sleeping pills. (TAKE, EAT, CONSUME, and USE all failed; the acceptable syntax I eventually found was POP PILL WITH WATER.) The author provides illustrations for the game to accompany the text. It’s also worth noting that the site the game is hosted on is flaky (through no fault of the author’s), and I had trouble getting far into the game. Take the author’s advice and play it offline. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like cyberpunk-flavored games.

Score: 5

The Broken Bottle, by Josh Irvin and the Affinity Forge team

“The Broken Bottle” is a medium-length choice-based game about children who have to fend for themselves on an adventure.

Gameplay: Gameplay consists of making decisions at certain points in the text, but there are only about a half-dozen such decisions over the course of the game, and it didn’t appear (from two playthroughs) that the choices substantially affected the plot. The game is beautifully illustrated, though, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the presentations. There’s not much interactivity in the game, but it might work better as simply a static illustrated short story, or even something like the multimedia storybooks popular in the 90s. 3/10.

Mechanics: The game tracks a bit of state, but there’s not much for the player to do. Aside from a few minor variations and flavortext, the decisions have little impact on the linear story. 3/10.

Presentation: Although the game is not very interactive, it features a beautiful interface and illustrations. The text is not quite strong enough to sustain my interest in it as an interactive story, but it could work as an illustrated children’s book. It’s also noteworthy that the story features magical and fantasy elements that are more original the standard generic-medieval ones. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You miss reading illustrated children’s books as an adult.

Score: 4

Charming, by Kaylah Facey

One of my favorite genres of interactive fiction is puzzlefests with light humor in a fantasy setting. I was therefore happy to see “Charming” on the list and, as expected, had fun playing it.

Gameplay: The gameplay focuses on solving puzzles rather than exploration; the world map is quite small. It’s a compact game that concentrates on a few things that it does very well, rather than being more diffuse. The author provides a walkthrough, and the protagonist’s familiar provides in-game hints. (The walkthrough also mentions some optional content that I didn’t have a chance to explore myself.) 7/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are mostly straightforward applications of the magic spells, which are interesting to explore. The magic spells are Infocom-style actions rather than part of a more complex system (as in “Junior Arithmancer”, in which some “spells” can be used as modifiers for other ones) or a more complex mechanic (as in “Savoir-Faire”, where the magic system is simple but has a wide variety of different applications), but they work well for the puzzles in the game. 7/10.

Presentation: The protagonist and her familiar are likable and strongly characterized. To explain the magic the protagonist runs across, in-game reference books go into the details of the spells, and it’s clear how the set pieces in the puzzles behave. I did encounter a minor guess-the-verb issue with the opening puzzle, whose solution I realized well before I figured out the right way of accomplishing it in the game. That didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game, though, and I didn’t run across any other substantial problems with the syntax or text. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoy light puzzle-based games with likable characters.

Score: 7

Six Silver Bullets, by William Dooling

In addition to math and interactive fiction, I also spend a significant fraction of my time playing board games. One particular genre of game in the rotation is the RPG-like adventure game like “Arkham Horror” or “Mansions of Madness”, in which characters traverse a map and have scripted encounters using their stats and whatever items or abilities they’ve found in their previous exploration. “Six Silver Bullets” is a game in that spirit, with the encounters mostly concerning enemy agents the protagonist encounters.

Gameplay: The protagonist is some sort of secret agent or assassin with amensia. As he wanders around game space, he frequently encounters other agents, who may be friendly or hostile. It’s unclear which on first meeting them, though he starts out with a few hints about particular agents. Although the game is ostensibly parser-based, there are a few explicit options given at each encounter. Because of its randomness, size, and amensiac plot, the game can be a bit confusing. There’s an undo feature to reduce frustration at the randomness of encounters, but it’s often unclear how to proceed in the game. 5/10.

Mechanics: Although there are others in the game, its core is the set of encounters with other agents. Those events are randomized, though the player is often given indications about how difficult the rolls will be for the various outcome. The gameplay feels a bit opaque as a result, especially with the difficulties in figuring what the player should be doing in the game. One particularly interesting mechanic is the set of titular bullets, each of which lands an automatic kill against an agent when used. 4/10.

Presentation: The terse, clipped style of the game suits its protagonist, even if it’s a bit overdone. The agents’ descriptions appear to be randomized, but that doesn’t detract from the game. Fundamentally, it feels like a board game, with randomly generated missions, randomized outcomes for encounters, and some basic state for the world. It’s a novel style of play I haven’t seen much in interactive fiction. (It’s particularly compelling to me because of the main drawbacks of games like “Arkham Horror” is its long play time, which a single-player computerized version neatly avoids.) 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoy games like “Arkham Horror.”

Score: 5